Surge capacity and its role in making us feel overwhelmed

COVID-19 is still taking a significant toll on the mental health and wellbeing of some Australians. Discover why something called surge capacity may explain it and, importantly, what you can do to cope if you’re affected.

The coronavirus pandemic touched the lives of every person in Australia in some shape or form, but no two people had exactly the same experience. One way it’s been described is ‘same storm, different boats’. In other words, while it was fairly smooth sailing for some people’s ‘boats’, others felt shipwrecked.

Research shows that mental health problems were at least twice as prevalent in Australia last year compared to non-pandemic times. Additionally, those people hit hard by factors such as losing a job, social isolation or caring for a loved one were most likely to experience anxiety and depression.

“We know from a lot of different studies that there’s been a huge increase in people who were anxious and depressed as a result of COVID,” says Richard Bryant, Scientia Professor of Psychology at UNSW and Director of the UNSW Traumatic Stress Clinic.

“And, what we have now is an ongoing threat related to everything from social isolation and the risk of infection, to loss of income, unemployment and simply the unpredictable and uncertain nature of this virus. There’s a lot of unknowns at play and the next few years are going to be tough for some people.”

For those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, Professor Bryant also flags something called prolonged grief disorder.

“Even though Australia hasn’t experienced the vast number of coronavirus casualties that other countries have, there’s no question that for the friends and families of the people who have died in Australia, this has been terrible. Most people lost their loved ones under very tough conditions, which just makes the grieving process all the more difficult,” he says.

The role of surge capacity

According to Professor Bryant, something called surge capacity helps explain the ‘coronavirus hangover’ some of us are experiencing – particularly those who are facing longer-lasting challenges.

“Essentially, we have a pool of resources that we can draw on in stressful or challenging times and in the short-term, those resources are what help us perform,” he says.

“But if you keep drawing down on those resources without refuelling the tank, eventually they’ll become completely exhausted until there’s nothing left to give.” In other words, we’ve passed our surge capacity.”

The methods we’d traditionally use to ‘top up the tank’ have been directly impacted by COVID too.

“For good mental health, we need to be able to appreciate and enjoy the pleasure the positive aspects of life bring. And much of that was taken away during COVID, so that we haven’t been able to do the things we enjoy in order to refuel our tanks,” says Professor Bryant.

Finding a pathway through

If you are experiencing symptoms of stressanxiety or depression, or as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, reaching out to a support service is a good first step.

“Maintaining social contact with friends and family, even if it’s virtually rather than face-to-face, is also very important,” says Professor Bryant.

The UNSW Traumatic Stress Clinic also offers a free, six-week program delivered via video conferencing that’s designed to reduce COVID-19-related stress and mood problems by teaching coping strategies.

“This is a really unusual and unique time, with remarkable stressors,” says Professor Bryant.

“As a result, we’ve seen people reaching out for help who haven’t felt the need to do that before, so we’ve been running a special COVID program.

“What we know is the fact that we can’t personally control things like the economy or the virus itself means that we need to learn strategies to help us cope. Because when you can’t rely on external things getting better, we have to learn to cope as best we can instead.”


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